All around us, there are stunning examples of architecture—from the many buildings and skyscrapers that highlight any city skyline to the monuments, sculptures, and bridges scattered in, around, and between them.
Ancient Roman scholar and writer Marcus Terentius Varro once said, “Divine nature gave the fields. Human art built the cities.”
That statement rings true, but the beauty of design isn’t reserved only for the urban areas. An empty cabin on an otherwise deserted hillside, a single lighthouse standing proudly along a coastline, or even a historic monument in the middle of an open field can all serve as examples of outstanding architecture just waiting to be enjoyed—and captured on camera.
Here are 14 architectural photography tips to inspire you to get out and shoot.
01. Think big picture and include the surroundings
Let’s say you’ve identified one building in particular that you want to photograph. How do you decide whether you want to capture the building by itself or include it as part of the bigger picture with its surroundings?
Many cities feature an abundance of architectural masterpieces that often include a combination of older and more modern-looking buildings. If you’re targeting an older building as your subject amidst a group of modern marvels, pick an angle that emphasizes just how much it stands out from the crowd.
The same concept applies to a structure that sits at the end of a street, peering through an opening to reveal its magnificence. If the building—or part of the building—stands out among its surroundings, by all means, try to capture the entire scene.
Alternatively, you may find a structure that truly stands on its own—just like this castle rising above a dense forest. This is a great time to step back and shoot the entire scene to capture that surreal “in the middle of nowhere” moment.
02. Experiment with panoramic shots
Shooting with a wide-angle lens to take panoramic images allows you to not only include more of your subjects’ surroundings, but it also creates a distinct view of the structure.
With a DSLR, choose a wide- or ultra-wide lens. If you want to shoot a panorama, your camera may have a scene mode with a panoramic option where you can move your camera from left to right to capture as much of the landscape as you want. Otherwise, you can take multiple pictures and stitch them together with editing software, like Photoshop.
Remember: panoramic photos don't always mean horizontal! You can also capture more of the top and bottom of a scene with a vertical pano.
If you’re using your smartphone, a wide-angle lens attachment works just as well. You’ll need a steady hand and some practice to keep moving along the guiding line, but the results will be well worth the effort.
03. Search for unique perspectives
Pointing and shooting straight at a subject has its place in photography, but when it comes to architecture, consider finding a perspective that the viewer may have never seen before—or even dreamt of in their wildest imagination.
For instance, rather than filling the entire frame with one building, try to identify visually what makes it so unique. Come up with creative ways of highlighting that identifying feature through experimenting with cropping and framing.
You can single out those specific features, play up their shapes and silhouettes, or experiment with angles from above or below.
There are countless ways to provide your viewer with a unique point of view: from reflections to framing to depth. Your only limit is how far you can stretch your imagination.
04. Capture skyline silhouettes
One way of capturing architecture is from a distance, especially when a structure can be identified by its unique outline against the sky. The silhouette cast by the structure during different points in the day can be used to highlight its architectural grandeur.
You can wait until the sun falls behind a building to create a striking silhouette or during sunset so that the soft colors of the sky bounce and reflect off of your subject.
You can also use silhouettes to create dramatic outlines of buildings or structures with unusual physical characteristics. Just position the sun behind your subject so that it is backlit, and let the shadows do their magic.
05. Shoot during golden hour
Good light equals good pictures, and that basic principle applies to architectural photography, too. To get the best results, make use of the best lighting of the day—the “golden hour”—during the early morning hours as the sun is rising and again at dusk when it’s setting.
The natural light that hits a building from the front and sides is the best light to not only capture long shadows, but also to bring out any details on its surface. When featuring an entire skyline, late-daylight can bathe an entire city in a warm, golden color. If the sun reflects off the glass of a building just right, it can create a stunning accent to any cityscape.
If you happen to be shooting inside, you’ll likely want as much light as possible, so the daylight hours are best to get your highest-quality indoor images.
06. Find the night lights
Shooting architecture at night provides an entirely new perspective that isn’t normally seen in daylight. The lights from inside and around a subject can create new colors, shadows, and reflections that add a new dimension to your photos.
A monument that appears rather bland during the day can really come alive at night with spotlights that shine up or down to highlight its most important parts. A building might have office lights that stay on all night—shining brightly through its glass exterior—or multi-colored beams that create rays of light against the building itself or the night sky.
Embrace these nuances and capture the moment as you see it with your naked eye.
When shooting at night, a steady camera is key. Consider using a tripod and going with a low ISO setting to help reduce any noise in the image. If you’re shooting with a smartphone, use a tripod, lock in your focus, and drop the exposure to keep the darkest areas of the photo from looking grainy.
If you want to add some flair to your night shot, try composing your image, so it includes the lights from street traffic. Then utilize your camera’s long-exposure capabilities to add streaks of light (aka light trails) beneath the buildings.
Leave your shutter open from 10-15 seconds to get some long trails. Your experience will vary, depending on the darkness and the amount of traffic, so practice with different shutter speeds to see what works best for your image. Also, use a low ISO and narrow aperture.
07. Look for more than buildings
When it comes to man-made structures, there’s so much more to pick from than just plain old buildings. Consider all the things you encounter on your daily commute that add to the overall design of a city.
A good place to start would be by looking at bridges. Some of the most photographed places in the world are iconic bridges, such as the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridge.
Anything that’s man-made—monuments, statues, lamp posts, stairs, even Ferris wheels—with an interesting design element is fair game for your architectural photography needs.
08. Don’t forget to look up and down
When you’re in the middle of a city’s busy downtown neighborhood, be sure to keep looking up for opportunities to capture the tall buildings and skyscrapers from a unique point-of-view. At any given moment, the intersection of buildings and skyline can overlap to create intriguing new shapes and forms.
The same strategy applies when you’re inside a building. This time, try looking down from the top floor. This is an especially effective way to showcase a spiral staircase as it descends all the way to the bottom.
Another option is to look out from a top-floor window (or roof, if you’re lucky!) to catch the tops of the buildings all around you.
09. Seize the symmetry
Symmetry is a powerful element in architecture that oftentimes stops you dead in your tracks once you encounter it. The sight of symmetrical architecture can provide a jaw-dropping “wow” moment.
Defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “the quality of being made up of exactly similar parts facing each other or around an axis,” you often know it once you see it. Now, it’s time to capture it.
To get a great symmetrical image, keep your focus parallel with the lines of the subject. Try to get as close to a perfectly symmetrical capture as possible when you’re shooting. This will take some practice. You may find that you need to adjust the image when you’re editing.
10. Catch reflections
As you’re shooting buildings and structures, train your eye to look for reflections because they can transform any architectural image into an intriguing masterpiece.
Reflections can be found anywhere from a puddle on a city street, to a river that runs around city, or even in the rear-view mirror of a car.
Always consider the way that a reflective body of water reacts to the weather. On a calm day, you could find a smooth, almost glassy appearance. A windy day, on the other hand, can provide a more dramatic effect. The waves and swirls caused by a gusting wind or even the sprinkles of rain from the sky can make any visible reflection look distorted, maybe even somewhat abstract.
Windows and glass also allow you to capture reflections in an interesting way. Sometimes, simply placing your camera right up against glass can create a visually stunning, reflective image. Another idea is to use a prop, like a crystal ball, for capturing an inverted view.
11. Keep it simple
Have you ever heard the phrase “Keep it simple, stupid?” It’s a standard design doctrine (often abbreviated to ‘K.I.S.S.’) that also applies to architectural photography. The thinking here is that you can still produce amazing work without resorting to anything overly complicated.
You don’t necessarily have to have a lot going on to capture a great image. In fact, more often than not, the simpler the work, the greater the visual impact.
Utilizing the empty space in your image allows you to highlight your subject more. When you allow for some extra breathing room around a building or structure—which is typically the sky above and around it—you draw more attention to its design and features.
Keep things simple and let the details of the architecture do the talking.
12. Pay attention to details
Consider what goes into the makeup of a structure. Rather than always taking an overview and capturing the entire image, take a look at the smaller parts that help build the bigger picture.
Take a bridge as an example. Consider focusing on the cables, posts, and railings that run along its length. Get up close to all the nuts and bolts of the structure. When you concentrate on these elements, you add character and depth to your chosen subject.
If you’re able to touch your subject, great. But if you need to use a telephoto lens to get up close to the details and really capture their texture, consider a tripod to be sure you get the best image quality with no movement.
If you want to go the extra mile, do a bit of research on the structure you’re shooting. There may be elements of its design and construction that go largely unnoticed by the general public. Use that information to your advantage to tell its story, providing an image that few people have ever seen before.
13. Explore the great indoors
When you spend a lot of time looking at the outsides of buildings, you forget there’s potentially an entire world of opportunity inside those same buildings. Depending on the kind of building you’re in, always be on the lookout for elaborate staircases, elegant lighting fixtures, marble pillars, intricately designed ceilings, and so much more.
As a general rule, always remember that certain buildings require permission before you can enter and start taking pictures, so be sure you understand the restrictions of what you’re allowed—and not allowed—to do there.
14. Embrace weather conditions
A photograph of a building set against the backdrop of blue sky is a clean and simple way to emphasize its structure. But if you took that same image when the sky is full of gray clouds and fog, it provides an entirely different atmosphere, setting a more somber mood and tone.
That’s not to say that you should be out taking pictures during a lightning storm, but always keep in mind how the weather can drastically help modify the look and feel of your shoot.
This might also be a good time to try a motion blur. If the clouds are sharp and bulky and you prefer them to be softer with streaks—what many people would refer to as “dreamy”—open that shutter for 30 seconds or more and see what kind of cool-looking effect you can get as a backdrop. A tripod is imperative, then use a slow shutter speed, a narrow aperture, and the minimum ISO. You’ll also likely need a neutral density (ND) filter if you’re shooting in the middle of the day, and a remote shutter release.
Believe it or not, you can accomplish the same thing with a smartphone. Find an app where you can adjust your shutter speed and practice with its varied settings until you get the sky to look the way you want.
With so many examples of stunning architecture all around us, there’s no shortage of material to look to for both inspiration and subject matter. When you learn how to train your eye—using these helpful tips, plus a little imagination and creativity—you can turn any building, bridge, or monument into an extraordinary photo subject. Discover and capture the architecture in and around your world.